Monday, August 15, 2011

In our Nation's Capitol

I still remember my first visit to Washington, DC back in high school. How in awe I was of seeing our nation’s capitol and actually seeing the monuments in person. My second visit I got a chance to see some of the city on my own, and there were still monuments that were either proposed or under construction. I hoped to go back and see what the final product was, but a lot happened in that nearly twenty-year span since I last visited.
My goal for this visit was to see what I missed last time, and to visit those places that were now complete. I had an itinerary for this visit and I intended to stick to it. Four days was plenty of time to get everything checked off. On my last visit I spent much of my time at the Smithsonian Institution museums and the monuments. I stuck to Union Station for shopping and food, and the Metro red line because it got me where I needed to go.
About the only thing I stuck to this time was the Metro red line. That carried me from my hotel into downtown DC. This time I started at the Post Office Pavilion I went mostly to get a feel for the lay of the land and to see if it had changed any. Since there wasn’t a lot that had changed, I took the elevator up to the clock tower observatory. On the way up, I stopped and saw the bells that once hung in the tower.
From the tower I could see the Capitol, most of the monuments, the National Mall, and most of the surrounding area. I walked first to the Natural History Museum because I wanted to see the Hope Diamond again. This time the large blue stone had a new temporary setting and was now on display instead of in its vault. I walked toward the Washington Monument on my way to the World War II Memorial.
The first thing that struck me is that the reflecting pool had been dug up for restoration. I expected to see the Washington and Lincoln monuments shimmering in the pool, but not this time. The WWII Memorial was a fitting tribute not only the people fought and died in battle, but to those states and territories those brave men and women came from. Each side commemorated both theaters of battle. The one thing that disconcerted me about the monument were some of the tourists who soaked their feet in the fountain in the middle.
Washington, DC had changed a lot. I never saw anyone soaking their feet let alone wading in the Reflecting Pool. Before I’d only heard about the double decker bus tours in New York. Now they’d expanded their business to the District of Columbia. The last time I was here, the only company I saw was Tourmobile, the open-air tram that ran between Capitol Hill, National Mall, the monuments, and Arlington Cemetery.
There were more changes too. Metro, the subway system, was larger than I remember. Color coded lines ran between downtown into the surrounding suburbs. As much as I walked around the city, I still hadn’t grasped the concept of which direction streets ran. Traffic circles also didn’t help to ease my confusion either. I made it as far as DuPont Circle before I tucked tail and ran back to Chinatown for dinner.
Back at my hotel I planned out my next day. I started with the Smithsonian Castle to get my bearings This was part of the collection I don’t remember seeing before, and inside it was interesting to say the least. The first thing I did is I paid my respects to James Smithson who is entombed just inside the front door. I wandered around the castle and marveled at its collections. In the back garden, I wandered downstairs into the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, which housed artwork, pottery, and other artifacts from across Asia.
Next door was the National Gallery of African Art, and then upstairs was the Freer Museum. I wandered through the galleries and took in the artwork before I moved on. Just up the mall was the National Museum of the American Indian. This was one of the galleries proposed, but not yet built on my last visit. I’d always been fascinated by Native American lore and their rituals.
The museum was a comprehensive look at the various tribes of the United States. Included were their rituals, their artifacts, their origins, and their struggles. What I liked about the museum is that it also included the tribes that once lived in the Chesapeake Bay region as well. For an added bonus, the program director stood in the middle of the rotunda and demonstrated on his drum the various chants and beats used in different rituals and ceremonies. I wanted to see it all over again, but there were other things I wanted to see.
The last time I was here I got caught up in the Museum of American History. I saw it top to bottom, but this time there was one new exhibit I wanted to see. Before I went, I stopped at the third floor and saw the pop culture exhibits. I saw Edith and Archie Bunker’s chairs, and the ruby slippers last time.
Part of the exhibit was a car from the Dumbo ride at Disneyland in California, Michael Jackson’s, hat, and the original Muppets from the Henson’s first TV show. I saw Charlie McCarthy, and original the Cat Woman suit. New this visit were Tony Hawk’s skateboard, Farrah Fawcett’s orange bikini, and one of Eddie Van Halen’s guitars. I rushed through the exhibit in order to get downstairs to see something I’d recently read about.
Down on the first floor in the science exhibits sits Julia Child’s kitchen. Growing up I remember her warbling voice explaining how to make different kinds of French dishes. Video clips of some of her cooking shows played in a continuous loop. Part of the exhibit were all the kitchen gadgets, utensils, and cooking vessels she’d acquired over the years. The one artifact that stood out most was the large mortar and pestle her husband bought her when they lived in France.
I marveled at how many utensils and gadgets she’d acquired. To think that before me sat the kitchen where Julia Child entertained her friends and family. I was curious about the three-legged chairs they brought back with them from Norway. The kitchen was designed by Paul Child to compliment his wife’s height so that she could work comfortably. I found myself rapt by Child’s cooking demonstrations that I had to force myself to step away.
Back out on the street I got away from the Mall and went in search of the Spy Museum. I always liked movies about espionage and international intrigue. In high school I remember vividly the Aldrich Ames case and what a big story that was when it broke. On my way I passed Ford’s Theater, where Lincoln was shot. Close by was the house where he died from his injuries.
I found the Spy Museum across the street from the National Portrait Gallery up the road from Madame Tussaud’s. The place screamed tourist trap, but I couldn’t resist. There was a short wait, but it was worth it. My favorite aspect of the whole espionage game is the technology involved. Everything from listening devices right down to the cameras.
Before I knew it I was caught up in the museum and found myself looking at not only the technology, but the history. Espionage was an important tool in war time to gather information on the enemy. Spies were employed to infiltrate the other side and retrieve important information.
The museum ended with espionage in popular culture and before I knew it, I was in the gift shop. I avoided buying anything and hit the street again. Tonight I went out for dinner and took in the DC nightlife. In spite of a little rain, I made the best of the evening.
Thursday I started at the Smithsonian Postal Museum. This is something I completely overlooked the last time I was here. Even though the exhibition area was small, there was a lot of history and information packed into those galleries. I walked back across the street to Union Station and took the red line to the National Zoo.
When I first planned my trip to New York, I wanted to go to the Bronx Zoo to see the panda bears. Ever since I was a kid, I was always fascinated by China and its ancient culture. I remember I saw the pandas on TV, but I never thought that I’d actually see one up close. The National Zoo I knew had pandas, so I waited until I got to DC to see them. Getting there was as always, an adventure.
The zoo was on the far side of DC, and I soon found out it rested on a hill. I didn’t care how far or how much I had to climb. This was something I’d been wanting to see for a long time. The zoo was at the top of the hill and I was never happier to see it. Because of the heat, not many of the animals were out. About the only ones enjoying the heat were the elephants, who had a large area where they could roam.
The outdoor panda enclose was empty, but I knew there had to be an indoor observation area. After seeing the other exhibits, I finally found the indoor panda exhibit. They looked to be as exhausted as me and the other tourists. Still this was a once in a lifetime opportunity, and I didn’t mind the journey getting here. Someday I’d like to go to China and see these animals in a more natural setting. Despite all the minor setbacks I’d had on this trip, this made it worth all the while here.
I had one day left in DC and I planned to make the most of it. In the morning, I set out again for Union Station and boarded the Tourmobile tram there. For the price it was well worth it not having to walk to all those monuments. When I was here last time, the FDR and Korean War Veterans’ Memorials were still in one stage or another of development. I remembered the tour guides pointed out their future locations on my last visit.
Tourmobile is the most bang for your buck in DC. Two days for $32 and hop on/hop off anywhere is worth it. The trams pick up at Union Station, circle around the Capitol, and then from there they stop at the Smithsonian museums. One goes to Arlington Cemetery while another goes to the opposite side of the National Mall. I found the tour guides entertaining as they brought their own unique spin to the narration.
My first stop was the FDR Memorial, and that covered the span of his unprecedented three terms in office. It was Roosevelt who carried the nation out of the Great Depression and saw them through World War II. Pullout quotes and bronze sculptures highlighted each of his terms from the creation of the Works Progress Administration to the attack on Pearl Harbor.
I was here more for my grandma, who grew up during the Roosevelt administration. She remembered hearing FDR on the radio and seeing him in person in Galveston as a little girl. I knew that if she were here she’d be soaking it all in just as I was. The one part of the memorial that stuck out at me was FDR in a wheelchair, something that had been for the most part, covered up during his presidency. Roosevelt was crippled by polio and had been unable to walk for many years.
I walked along the Tidal Basin path up to the bookstore where a crudely made wheelchair was on display. It was fashioned from a kitchen chair that had been mounted on wheels. I bought a couple of postcards and boarded the tram to the Korean War Veterans’ Memorial. When I visited last, I went to the Vietnam War Memorial, and I found this just as if not more moving than that one.
Stainless steel sculptures of soldiers as they trod across the junipers appear as if they are coming out of the forest. They have on raincoats, a testament to the conditions in which they fought. The black granite walls are engraved with the faces of the soldiers and the men they fought against in order to keep Korea free from communism. Above the fountain is a wall with the raised words Freedom is Not Free on it. I took a moment to reflect on the sacrifice these men made in order to keep both Koreans and Americans free.
I moved on from there and took a moment to visit the Lincoln Monument, another one I’d seen the last time. The place teemed with tourists, and I decided if I wanted to go, I could wait until later. I got back on the tram and headed back toward the Mall because I wanted to see the Newseum next. That was the last thing on my itinerary, but again the journey there was more than the destination.
As the tour made its way up Pennsylvania Avenue, Metro PD had the intersection blocked. Here I was in DC and stuck in traffic for the first time ever. I didn’t know what was going on until the driver announced that it was a motorcade. All of us on the tram readied our cameras as the motorcade whizzed by us. Seeing that completed my trip.
I got off the tram at the National Gallery of Art and walked across the street to the Newseum. In college I majored in communications with a concentration in radio and TV. I didn’t care what its detractors said, I wanted to see the Newseum and judge for myself.
The tour started on the lower level and then from there went up to the eighth floor in a glass elevator. I soaked up the history of what I had hoped would someday be my profession. The award winning photography and the correlation between the media, the government, and the public’s mistrust of both at times was a good starting point.
I knew the place was a bit touristy, but the expanse of the building and its collections were noteworthy. There’s the mangled broadcast tower from atop the World Trade Center, which encompasses reporters accounts of being there as it happened, and the headlines from papers around the world on that fateful day a decade ago. There’s also an exhibit on Hurricane Katrina, the other big story of the last decade. Again reporters recount their experiences as they covered the emerging tragedy.
From there the museum covers the history of the news from the invention of the printing press to advances in technology. From radio to TV and now social media, the Newseum makes an effort to cover all aspects of reporting. Included are several theaters that cover different aspects of history and how the media played a role in each.
As I made my way downstairs through the exhibits, my afternoon was almost gone. In a matter of hours, I’d be back on a plane to Houston. Back to reality, back to the daily grind. As much as I wanted to experience the 4D theater, I skipped it in favor of going back to my room where I packed up and got ready to go. If I come back to DC, I’d like to bring my family along so that they can experience it for themselves.
I have to say that my travels have no doubt left an indelible impression on me. One week wasn’t enough to see the East Coast, but I did my best. I eased my way back into reality on the plane ride home the next day. My flight stopped in Chicago and New Orleans on the way home, and by the time I reached Houston, I was as ready as I could be to get back to life as I knew it before my vacation.

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